Thoughts on Interpretation: Thinking Alongside Middle School Students
I have the privilege of working across Grades 3-8 on most days. This past year I began staff development in a new school in New Jersey, helping English teachers implement writing workshop in Grades 6-8. The elementary schools were in year two of implementation and it was time to carry the work up. Middle school work is often my most complicated. In this particular district the teachers are open, but tentative, and have struggled with the change. Beloved curriculum they’ve taught for years is being replaced (in part) and they often ask to see proof that teaching in this way, teaching Units through the writing process, is best for their students. Their high performing, most dutiful, students. My usual line, ‘there are many ways to teach a child to read or write. You have to decide what you feel is the best way to do it,’ helped, but wasn’t enough.
The seventh grade was working on a writing about reading unit of study. I had the privilege of joining the teachers for two sessions across their six-week unit. When we first met we spoke at length about how this unit would be very much a hybrid of reading and writing. I shared what I’d learned from my years at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project: when children struggle to write interpretively about a text it’s most often a reading issue. Or at least, at first, it’s a reading issue.
I suggested that we spend an extra week only on helping students to write about their reading in ways that are organic, flexible and driven by the text. I also suggested that the classroom teachers lead lots and lots of small groups in the first week offering up multiple ways to interpret inside of a text. We borrowed strategies from the TCRWP Unit of Study Writing about Reading: From Reader’s Notebooks to Companion Books by Audra Robb as well as Jennifer Seravallo’s The Reading Strategies Book. We also invented a few of our own.
During the first week I came in to do a demonstration lesson. Using the class mentor text, The Stolen Party by Liliana Heker, I shared with students how, as I read the text, I had an image in my mind of the dress. The image came from my own interpretation, not only the words on the page. In fact, I shared, my image differed slightly from the description in the text. The text states:
And she wasn't sure whether she had been heard, but on the morning of the party she discovered that her mother had starched her Christmas dress. And in the afternoon, after washing her hair, her mother rinsed it in apple vinegar so that it would be all nice and shiny. Before going out, Rosaura admired herself in the mirror, with her white dress and glossy hair, and thought she looked terribly pretty.
Even with these words from the author, I had pictured something different. I pictured the dress in vivid red, elegant and stiff. I explained to students that part of what we do as we read is to read closely. But that isn’t all we do. When we want to interpret we have to bring together all of the text and as I read on, I couldn’t help but picture a dress that was bold and fiery (as the mother was, as the girl might be one day). The first image, however, wasn’t what was most important. What helped me to interpret as I read was shifting that image as the story changed. The way I envisioned the dress grew. It became, to me, a maid’s outfit. I shared my sketches with the students.
The students had many reactions and we debated for a bit about my process. Is it worthwhile, or correct, to envision beyond the literal description an author provides? Is interpretation about matching an author’s single purpose or is it about peeling back layers that you can support and connect across the text and the world? I replied that I thought it was all of these and more.
During independent writing time, I challenged students to find ways to write long, to write to interpret. They had a variety of texts to access (including independent reading novels) and most dug in. A few students were drawn to my sketches and asked if they could try more of this. The teachers and I encouraged them to follow this path. As the period wound down, a girl came up to me and showed this final image. She shared, ‘I didn’t see what you saw at all. I saw a simple white dress destroyed. Maybe from working and spilling, or maybe because some of the kids dumped things on her.” I asked, if this was her image, what it made her learn from the text, what she interpreted. She replied, “In life you can dress things up if you want. But others may still try to ruin you.” “Yes,” I nodded. “I think that is true.”
A valid interpretation of The Stolen Party and of life.